WASHINGTON—Tom DeLay, the pugnacious Texas Republican dogged by ethics complaints, stepped down permanently as House majority leader Saturday, the first political casualty of a blossoming Washington lobbying scandal.
Maintaining that he has "always acted in an ethical manner," DeLay nonetheless told House Republican lawmakers in a letter that he was permanently stepping down because "I cannot allow our adversaries to divide and distract our attention."
DeLay was forced to step down temporarily as leader in September when he was indicted by a Texas grand jury on charges that he broke state campaign finance laws. But the final straw came last week when Jack Abramoff, a once-powerful Republican lobbyist with close ties to DeLay, pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
DeLay reached his decision Saturday in Texas, a day after two House Republicans initiated a drive to keep DeLay from reclaiming his leadership post and to hold elections to replace him permanently.
DeLay will keep a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which distributes government money, and plans to run for re-election. But the departure from the leadership of a key figure in pushing President Bush's agenda for the past five years could hobble the White House in the future. DeLay's stepping down may be some help to House Republicans, who've benefited from DeLay's tactical and fundraising prowess, but have also seen their popularity plummet nationally amid headline-making scandals in which he often had a role.
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Friday showed the American public favored Democrats over Republicans 49 percent to 36 percent for Congress. Democrats need 15 seats in the 435-member House of Representatives to win control.
Delay's resignation from the leadership threw the House into an unpredictable phase that will test House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. Hastert is well regarded by his colleagues, but the House Republican caucus was already stirring with demands for greater leadership changes.
"We don't just need new leaders, we need a major course correction," Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of the two lawmakers who prompted the effort to replace DeLay, said in an interview Saturday.
Even before DeLay reached his decision, Rep. Melissa Hart, R-Pa., demanded Friday in a statement that the Republican House membership "needs the ability to reassess the leadership team as a whole."
Hastert, who abruptly canceled a foreign trip he was to embark upon Monday, said he would schedule leadership elections for the week of Jan. 31. A top leadership aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the elections, said current plans are only to fill DeLay's vacancy, not other leadership posts.
A leadership fight could disrupt the House's handling of some important upcoming legislative issues. Among them are the renewal of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act, which expires Feb. 3, reductions in planned spending for anti-poverty programs and billions of dollars in tax cuts.
DeLay, in a letter to Hastert, indicated that it was best for the party if he stepped aside. "The job of majority leader and the mandate of the Republican majority are too important to be hamstrung, even for a few months, by personal distractions," he wrote.
Hastert, in a statement, said Delay's was "an honorable decision and the right decision for the House Republican Conference."
Democrats showed no signs of relenting after DeLay stepped down.
"By forcing out Tom DeLay, Republicans have addressed a party problem but not the institutional problem of corruption that most troubles the American people," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., the chairman of the campaign arm of the House Democrats.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said: "The culture of corruption is so pervasive in the Republican conference that a single person stepping down is not nearly enough to clean up the Republican Congress."
Flake said rank-and-file Republicans will insist on elections that force leadership candidates to propose fundamental changes in the ways that legislators work. Flake has called for an end to targeted legislative provisions, called earmarks, that lawmakers insert into bills to help their congressional districts or special interests. Earmarks are a favorite of lobbyists seeking special legislative treatment.
Flake said even Hastert's fate could hang on the elections. "It really depends on how willing the speaker is to align himself with a reform agenda," Flake said.
Among the leading candidates to replace DeLay are Roy Blunt of Missouri and John Boehner of Ohio. Blunt stepped in to become acting majority leader after DeLay was indicted in Texas. Boehner is chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and was once a member of the leadership team.
In statements issued Saturday, Blunt and Boehner both praised DeLay as one of the party's most effective leaders. But while Boehner noted that he and DeLay "have had our differences over the years," Blunt described DeLay as "my good friend."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Tom DeLay
Need to map